FROM TC: Although I typically try to condense most commentary down to a short précis with a link to the full text for interested readers to read more, occasionally I find provocative commentary that is hard to reduce down to only a few sentences. The blog post below is an example. That said, the substantial excerpt below is not the full text of what Mr. Barker wrote. You'll need to click on the title of his essay to read the whole thing.


Commentary: Thoughts on why we must talk about art and class

Jeremy M. Barker, Culturebot blog, 7/9/12

            For complex reasons, artists actually have the expectation that it shouldn't be so hard. That art-making could be a job, or that existing funding and support structures should be there to help them with their specific problems. In a strangely related way, a tedious debate has been unfolding elsewhere over the recent TCG conference in Boston, where a local blogger/artist named Ian Thal has given voice to populist outrage over how expensive registration [was], and how local artists who volunteered to take part were silenced by TCG staff who basically told them (maybe) that as volunteers, they could not actually take part in discussions. He hashed the new tag #OccupyTCG. Well, hello dude, TCG exists to support regional theaters. Is that [you]? If not, maybe the TCG conference isn't for you. Also, if by chance you want to be a regional theater but are not, that is not actually their fault. All that big tent "American Theater" stuff is great, but let's be realistic for a moment and maybe get over ourselves a little in the process and admit that theater is not a monolith, and one trade organization is probably never going to serve all our diverse needs. And yes, maybe TCG needs to be more honest and direct about the issues it faces in presenting its program, and avoid the paeans to the art that make it sound like it could be the one thing for us all. It's not. I have no interest in the TCG conference. It's just not particularly relevant to the work I deal with. And that's not its fault. It does something well, and that's being a platform for regional theaters. Other institutions do or need to exist (or maybe just be better) to address other concerns. It is not the fault of one organization that other organizations for what amount to entirely different fields do not exist.

            Part of the complaining on the part of artists is envy-based; someone has it better or easier, so why should I have to work so hard? Part of Thal's complaint is essentially that he sees the TCG conference as this big important thing (in a way it's really not), but based on his perspective, he's closed out and sees that as problem. I posit that one of the reasons we so readily discount discussion of class - which is of course, not just about money, per se - is because it's a deeply uncomfortable topic. But it must be addressed. We cannot continue placing the expectation on artists to simply make do with what they have while blithely choosing not to interrogate the structures that have been built with the general intent of supporting them and their work. I spent many years in Seattle, Washington, covering the arts there, and I've seen how the punk rock/DIY ethos is so painfully limiting. It's not resistance, it's capitulation. And it leads to artistic stagnation.

            One of the reasons the best cities to produce art in, given space and cost, are not New York-level incubators, is precisely because those communities become comfortable, where you're solely responsible for challenging yourself (which is why I'm doubly impressed at the amazing work that does come from there). It's easy to have fun, but fun can become a salve, a way of being in the world. [It] can prevent us from challenging ourselves artistically and intellectually, and if we begin with the baseline that surely, artistic and intellectual investigation are wholly personal endeavors, we (a) risk turning ourselves off, ignoring the world, and limiting art and thought to nothing more than onanistic pursuits, and (b) accepting a system in which we are categorically devalued by a political and economic structure that has a huge interest in silencing dissent.

            Artists are workers. It's not a good thing that dance as a form exists because of lecherous rich dudes. There is no reason art should have to limit itself to assuming that its only value could lie in helping to change the world around it, at the expense of discussions of its own political economy. To accept that art is the purview of the rich, or perhaps better, a "certain class" ... is to accept that those with access to such resources are the only people who should have a voice in imagining an alternative. Years ago, while he was on a book tour promoting his novel All the Sad Young Literary Men, set in the sort of elite East Coast universities I've never attended, I interviewed the writer, Keith Gessen. Over soup and a beer at a gastropub in downtown Seattle, I asked, off-handedly, from my naive West Coast perspective, why people should care about the sex lives and reading habits of rich kids at Harvard or Yale. He looked at my quizzically, and asked, "You know those people run the world, right?"

            This is not simple. It cannot be elided. It's central and a topic Gessen and his colleagues have been far more willing to engage than we in the contemporary performance world. I can't offer easy answers myself, but I find myself less and less willing to accept a logic that defends the status quo. 

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